Fitness a priority as schools standardize PE

SEATTLE -- Inside the elementary school gym third- and fourth-graders were in different exercise groups, working their biceps with yellow stretch bands or throwing basketballs in the air to the beat of hip-hop music.

SEATTLE -- Inside the elementary school gym third- and fourth-graders were in different exercise groups, working their biceps with yellow stretch bands or throwing basketballs in the air to the beat of hip-hop music.

After a minute, they rotated.

Physical-education teacher Chuck Millsap later asked them to assess how hard their bodies worked during the minute-long sessions. Intensity was the lesson of the day.

The scene was in contrast to more traditional PE programs that have often amounted to handing out sports equipment to kids and letting them play on their own.

This year, Seattle Public Schools has moved forward with a standardized PE curriculum it tested in 10 schools last year that aims to give kids a deeper understanding of health. The curriculum uses technology to track students' fitness over the years and includes more academics.


"PE is not recess or mindless play anymore," said Millsap, who has taught the subject for nine years.

Proponents of the curriculum say that it's a step toward addressing the nation's growing problem of childhood obesity and that Seattle could serve as a model for how large urban districts can provide quality standardized physical education at all schools.

In the past, rock climbing, yoga and acrobatics were taught in some of the district's schools, but those innovations were largely up to individual teachers or schools.

Although Washington state requires 100 minutes per week of PE for students in grades K-12, there has never been a way to ensure that schools were meeting that requirement. The new curriculum gives guidelines for the district's 138 PE teachers.

"It creates a common language across the district," Millsap said. "I think (before) we were kind of doing our own thing."

Under the new curriculum, elementary-school kids learn the foundations of fitness and are taught terms like intensity, body composition and flexibility. They also practice basic motor skills and activities like skipping, hopping, running or jumping.

In middle school, students develop a personalized fitness plan. In high school, they also take a personal fitness class and may select from among preferred activities -- such as cycling, tennis or dancing.

Throughout their education, students receive both written tests and fitness assessments and teachers use technology to record and track their progress.


At Bagley Elementary, Millsap said unlike "those games we used to play in class that really had no outside impact," he now hears students in other school settings talking about getting "my hour of cardio" at home, working "on my core" or "strength training" with parents.

Having a goal is key

Lori Dunn, the district's physical-education program manager, said one goal is to instill in students a sense of responsibility for their own health and fitness, even if they're not the most athletic.

"It used to be all about team sports and kids who didn't have the skill sit on the side," Dunn said. "Now, we're individualizing activity for every student."

The change came from a partnership between the school district and a local nonprofit organization called Treeswing, which promotes children's health. Rolling out the curriculum in the district's 88 schools costs $750,000, a third of which Treeswing committed to raising for the district. The district has received or is seeking grant money to pay for the rest.

Proponents say that while physical education has long been seen as less crucial than other subjects, it's critical to a child's academic success."Kids need to know how to read and write, but they can't if they're not healthy," said Tracy Bennett, executive director of Treeswing.And last year's pilot program revealed the continuing challenges in getting the program in place at all schools. Because all the funding is not yet in hand, many teachers still lack some of the equipment, such as heart monitors, to put the program fully into practice.

Most people support the idea of physical education, but no one wants to pay for it, Bennett said. "There isn't anyone who thinks it's a bad idea but there's a lot of 'I'll let someone else pick up the tab.' "

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